Bren Simmers, “[night of nesting dolls]”

Hastings_Sunrise-COVER

 

How do you evoke a sense of place in a poem? How does a poem communicate what it feels like to be somewhere, not just as a tourist, but as a local, an inhabitant, someone who belongs? This seems to me especially tricky in an urban landscape. How do you trace belonging in a space that is poor in the flora and fauna that usually bring magic and specificity to a poem of place?

Bren Simmers’ second book, Hastings-Sunrise (Nightwood 2015) makes its home in the Vancouver neighborhood of its title, and it unapologetically, even possessively, inhabits that neighborhood. My friend Paul tells me that Vancouver writers have a special knack for evoking their neighborhoods in poetry and fiction, and I will defer to his wider reading on the subject. So maybe it’s something about Vancouver? I can’t say, but there’s a dissertation in there somewhere for somebody.

Most of Simmers’ poems in this collection are untitled, and are organized around the time of year, so we trace Hastings-Sunrise over the course of a seasonal cycle. She starts with a table of contents that is actually a rough diagram of the “21 x 13 blocks” of her neighborhood, and adds playful maps of valuable local information such as “Map of Neighborhood Swings,” “Map of Open Doors,” lists of businesses recently opened and closed, “Map of Christmas Lights,” etc. Cumulatively, over the course of the book, we start to feel at home in some of the recurring cross-streets and sightlines, but before we get to that point, here’s one poem from the first section of the book which takes place during spring:

 

Night of nesting dolls,

many layers held

inside this one:

cocktails on the balcony,

supper at eight, the after-

dinner doubles games,

while kids pump legs

on swing sets.

At sundown, an old man

shuffles three times

around the park. Nightly,

I’ve started to look for

his cross-country gait,

tan paperboy cap,

started to call him ours.

Then falls the deep blue

scrim and the few

stars we can spot

amid shipyard cranes

and lights on Grouse.

So brief,

the smallest doll

is sleep.

 

from Hastings-Sunrise, published by Nightwood (2015), used by permission

 

There’s some lovely music and image-making here, but I want to spend most of my space unpacking the way Simmers organizes this poem, via the overarching image of nesting dolls. I find something delightfully odd in the progression and believe it reveals some real insight into how we encounter our little near-dwellings (neigh/nigh = near, bur = dwelling), our neighborhoods, and ultimately ourselves.

If I were to tell you that I was going to write a poem describing a landscape using nesting dolls as a metaphor, you’d probably assume that I would use the first, largest nesting doll to represent the world, the sky, the wider topography, elevation and longitude and such things. Subsequent “dolls” would narrow the focus in space until the smallest dolls might represent my street, my house, my living room, my couch, etc. Organizing the poem spatially would make a certain logical sense, but it would also be pretty predictable and boring.

It would also, ultimately, be a dumb way to explore how we connect to our landscape. On a day-to-day basis, we don’t relate to our neighborhoods thinking about elevation and longitude, but rather through the lens of our own lives, what we’re doing in the landscape, how we are living in it. So Simmers scatters the spatial, and starts with “cocktails on the balcony, / supper at eight” etc. The largest nesting doll, the one that contains everything else in the poem, is the set of actions that the speaker is performing on what seems like a pleasant, leisurely spring evening near a park.

We might also read the largest frame for the poem as being one of mood or tone, setting us up as readers to view the world here through a lens of ease and affection. Subsequent poems might reframe our encounter with Hastings-Sunrise through gloom or anger or worry or frustration (as indeed some do), but for now, for tonight, at the opening of this poem, we get to see the area at its most welcoming.

Once we know what we’re doing, and how we’re feeling, we can start to see the world around us, and the next nesting doll contains a living neighbour, “an old man” who daily “shuffles three times / around the park.” Our speaker knows him well enough to expect him every night, to recognize his “tan paperboy cap” (notice the nice assonance of the flat a’s there), to know how many times he circles the park, even to weirdly think of him as “ours,” but not well enough to know his name, or where he’s arriving from. It’s worth pointing out that even here, during the course of the poem, our speaker side-steps the opportunity to introduce herself to her old man, so there are clearly limits to the spirit of neighborliness that she feels, even under the ideal circumstances of this poem. Why not take a break from playing doubles to say hello? In another poem from the book, the speaker feels a tinge of jealousy when, at a coffee shop, the barista calls out to another customer by name, but the tinge isn’t enough for her to go ahead and make herself known. Something of urban personal boundaries, or a desire for privacy, or just plain-old Canadian embarrassment, remains, which also speaks to the kind of life our speaker has in Hastings-Sunrise – a life whose connection to those around her is not absolute, or fully without mistrust. There are good reasons for this which appear in other poems from the book, but here, given the lighter mood, it’s just a lingering reticence.

Meanwhile, if we are back-and-forth in space, we are fairly consistent in time, moving through the evening, cocktails on the balcony, after-dinner activities in the park, and ultimately, inevitably, darkness falling and night coming on.

Oddly, as night approaches, the description of the landscape is at its most specific – the shipyard cranes make this a fairly unusual cityscape, and I assume “Grouse” refers to Grouse Mountain, the well-known Vancouver landmark that can be seen quite clearly from the parts of Hastings-Sunrise that approach the water. (Feel free to click here to see some nice promotional images.) Again, notice the reticence, though – our speaker is willing to locate herself close enough to the harbour to see the cranes and the lights on Grouse, but she won’t tell us which street she lives on herself. Even to us, her readers, there’s a slight holding back.

(Can I say as an aside that I believe the word “grouse” to be one of the ugliest words in the English language? I mean that in a good way.)

The blessing and curse of belonging to a place, any place, is that it shrinks our horizons – if you belong somewhere, especially in an urban environment, you’re only going to see a narrow slice of sky. And so as the poem starts to close down, Simmers gestures towards the limitations of planting herself in Hastings-Sunrise knowing that doing so very literally narrows her vision of the rest of the world.

The final image, “the smallest doll / is sleep,” evokes the satisfaction we feel at the end of a good day, shutting down our outward-gazing selves and hunkering into our smallest spaces, the spaces that are most our own. But it also gives voice to complaint (sleep “so brief”) and to the limitations of our individual selves, trapped in the narrowness of the world inside our eyelids. We might dream of a wider world but we can’t build a home there.

I admire this poem, and indeed the whole collection Hastings-Sunrise, because it explores the richness and limitations of being at home in a neighborhood, but also being at home in an individual self who (in most cases) must choose just one place in which to make her life.

 

Ross Gay, “Ode to Drinking Water from My Hands”

Ross Gay Cover better

 

Odes are songs of praise, to a person or an event or an object – a wedding poem, or epithalmium, is a kind of ode, as are a lot of nature poems. Often, an ode can be a way to meditate on what makes the subject worth praising, so the topic can be less direct than the title implies. For example, the way I read John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” the real subject of praise is how we lose ourselves (briefly, fleetingly) when encountering something truly beautiful. You could say the nightingale is a vehicle for the poet’s praise of the feeling of losing oneself. There are also contemporary poems where the term “ode” is used ironically, as in Damian Rogers’ “Ode to a Rolling Blackout,” the subject of my last post.

The great 20th century Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote a series of Odes in the early 1950s that are some of his most plain-spoken and accessible poems. If you’ve had trouble getting past the lush surrealism of Neruda’s Love Sonnets or the more epic scope of his Canto General, the Odes are a great place to start. Partly motivated by a political desire to speak to (and on behalf of) common people, Neruda wrote odes to mundane things like “Ode to My Socks,” “Ode to Broken Things,” and “Ode to the Tomato,” praising their usefulness and lack of pretention, but also elevating their commonness by focusing his lyrical attention on them. The poems are also full of whimsy and joy and often a bit of nostalgia. He expresses regret that we have to “assassinate” the tomato to enjoy its freshness, and wonders at how his clothes “make me what I am” and vice versa (I’m using an old translation edited by Nathaniel Tarn). A teacher of mine once remarked that Neruda wanted to eat the world, and there’s something boldly loving in these poems that is only matched in my reading experience by Walt Whitman.

I mention Neruda because he’s clearly one of the presiding spirits for Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, the book from which this poem is drawn, and which contains a number of odes and praise-songs. The impulse to praise the simple and straightforward, even perhaps a socio-political desire to elevate the mundane by focusing poetic attention on it, is similar in both poets. But there are also some interesting points of departure. For one thing, Gay’s odes are mostly about actions rather than things. Neruda’s tomato, clothes, and yellow bird become Gay’s “Ode to Sleeping in My Clothes,” “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt,” and here, drinking water with his hands. I want to explore this difference, but first here’s the poem:

 

Ode to Drinking Water With My Hands

 

which today, in the garden,

I’d forgotten

I’d known and more

forgotten

I’d learned and was taught this

by my grandfather

who, in the midst of arranging

and watering

the small bouquets

on mostly the freshest graves

saw my thirst

and cranked the rusty red pump

bringing forth

from what sounded like the gravelly throat

of an animal

a frigid torrent

and with his hands made a lagoon

from which he drank

and then I drank

before he cranked again

making of my hands, now,

a fountain in which I can see

the silty bottom

drifting while I drink

and drink and

my grandfather waters the flowers

on the graves

among which are his

and his wife’s

unfinished and patient, glistening

after he rinses the bird shit

from his wife’s

and the pump exhales

and I drink

to the bottom of my fountain

and join him

in his work.

 

— from Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015) 

 

If you’ve perused any of Neruda’s Odes, you can see right away that the form here is a direct imitation/homage – the short lines, the straightforward language. The form forces us to slow down, but not in a way that feels pretentious – to me it reads more like the deliberate, present-tense wandering of the imagination as it connects back to memory. The act of drinking from his hands, which the speaker is doing “today, in the garden,” reminds him of his childhood when he first learned this skill from his grandfather.

A little side-note about those first few lines – he’s telling us he’s forgotten these things (drinking from his hands, being taught how) as a way of telling us that he’s now remembered them. Just a neat little reversal as we go along, especially because it’s not only the skill that he’s now remembering.

So back to the question of actions versus things. In this poem, and in the other odes I’ve seen by Ross Gay, the action being praised isn’t significant in and of itself. This is in contrast to Neruda, who seems to want to elevate the subjects of his attention, in part just by virtue of his attention. This is a little unfair to Neruda, but I get a vision when reading his Odes of all the little items of the world – marbles, pieces of string, dead mice – waiting outside his study hoping for him to bestow his poetic attention upon them. And that he would make time for them all if he could. Neruda’s vision (like Whitman’s) is all-embracing, and a little self-important.

Gay’s odes, on the other hand, don’t presume any kind of universalism. When he praises “drinking water with my hands,” there’s no presumption that this activity is as meaningful for everyone else as it is for him. (Notice how all of the titles of the Ross Gay odes I mentioned above include the word “my.” They are intended, without apology, to be specific to his own experience.) Drinking water with his hands today, in his own garden, reminds the speaker of his own grandfather watering graves – “mostly the freshest,” but also his own – and it’s that reminder that makes the action worthy of praise. The action calls forth a whole host of feelings of grief and love, not to mention the sensual memories that get brought up with it – the sound of water coming up the pipe with “like the gravelly throat / of an animal,” or the “lagoon” that appears in his grandfather’s hands. I love that word “lagoon,” how it evokes the massive size – in the speaker’s childhood memory – of his grandfather’s hands. These memories and feelings are what’s really being praised.

So weirdly, by focusing on an activity that is meaningful in his individual way, Gay’s efforts feel welcoming, open to participation by us as readers. Instead of a line of little items waiting for Neruda’s attention, I get an invitation: “This is how drinking water from my hands is meaningful for me; what simple actions are meaningful in this way for you?” I don’t personally have any strong memories connected to drinking water out of my hands, but reading this poem I’m reminded of cracking my knuckles with my own grandfather, holding up my hand to his to measure its size, and am tempted to write my own “Ode to Cracking My Knuckles,” to participate in a dialog with Ross Gay. So the poem evokes not just his own memories, but summons similar ones in a total stranger – that’s no small feat for a praise song. What might your memory be?

 

Damian Rogers, “Ode to a Rolling Blackout”

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Cover image courtesy of Coach House Books.

 

Ode to a Rolling Blackout

 

Teachers in Oklahoma seek to stop students

from discovering the gateway of digital drugs.

 

We’re all having a hard time, but some problems

are preferable to others: the problems of the very rich,

 

for example. Some swear the pile is the only known

enemy of the hole. O pretty girls tripping on night,

 

enjoy this next round, as your pupils pour out

past last call. One of you will soon stop caring

 

for your hair and your delicates will start to sour.

You will pick your teeth clean with your coke nail.

 

Now you crackle like a coal, lips slick with petroleum.

Little pots of hot pink clink like crystal as you travel

 

down the black tube toward morning. Did you kiss

the devil’s ass in the alley? Please, no more questions.

 

            — from Dear Leader (Coach House, 2015)

 

Despite what literary scholars and theorists have been telling us for decades, it’s still a common natural impulse when reading poetry to look for the poet’s authentic experience in the subject matter. Knowing that Anne Sexton committed suicide adds a certain aura of authenticity to the anguish in her poems. But are poets under any obligation to deliver this kind of confession? Can we still be moved by a powerful poem about, say, a father’s death, if a poet writes it while both his parents are living? Of course. And yet, many readers still crave to connect a poem to the poet’s biography.

But in an age when over-sharing personal information is ubiquitous to our culture, then what avenue of self-exploration can still feel daring, powerful, even just resonant? The family secrets Robert Lowell unearthed in Life Studies are child’s play compared to the tell-all memoirs of the last few decades, and Sylvia Plath’s daddy issues are on full display on the internet. If all is revealed on Instagram, then what artistic purpose could a confessional mode provide? Or, to put it in another way, how does a lyric poet respond to this new situation? How can we touch on, or gesture toward, personal experience without descending into cheap diaristic navel-gazing?

One strategy that Damian Rogers employs in this poem, and one that I see a lot of elsewhere (including in my own work, I admit), is a coyness about how much of a dark truth is truly personal. We aren’t sure how many of the experiences being referred to here are “confessions” and how many are just within the realm of the poet’s imagination. And the blurriness of that line seems to be exactly the subject of the poem itself.

Starting with the second stanza of “Ode to a Rolling Blackout,” Rogers employs a war-weary older-sister tone that mixes flippant generalization (“We’re all having a hard time,” “some problems are…”) with the implication that real darkness lurks beneath the surface. Nothing personal is yet revealed, but she nevertheless lands on a brilliant, biting discovery: “Some swear the pile is the only known / enemy of the hole.” It’s a new aphorism that could be applied to everything from road repair to sexual politics to drug abuse and it hovers over the rest of the poem like a guiding principle: a pile of words in a poem fighting the hole of meaninglessness, a small pile of cocaine fighting a feeling of emptiness in the addict, etc. etc.

The speaker then turns her attention to address some “pretty girls tripping on night,” and this is where the poem really takes off. Forgive me if, to my English professor ears, this phrase reminds me of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land with its “O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, / Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.” The failed Romanticism of the two passages, and the warning that contains elements of longing, feels similar.

But the source of disappointment in Rogers’ poem is not quite so abstract or hifalutin as in Eliot’s work. The images that follow are of the various ways that some young women put themselves at risk in search of a “pile.”  Notice all the p’s in the next sentence: “O pretty girls tripping on night, // enjoy this next round, as your pupils pour out / past last call.” In a poem that hasn’t yet called a lot of attention to its musicality, it’s a notable moment of alliterative play, one that will recur later in the poem. But the music in use here is not a pretty one: multiple p sounds don’t really sound “beautiful.” They evoke something more like rough laughter or spitting.

Most of these “pretty girls” will likely survive their youthful misbehaviors “tripping on night” and the speaker seems to wish them well, but her interest zooms in on the one who will more dangerously lose her way: “One of you will stop caring // for your hair and your delicates will start to sour. / You will pick your teeth clean with your coke nail.” I love how the prim euphemism “delicates” contrasts with the more brutal and slangy “coke nail.” It’s as if the speaker herself can’t decide whose experience she most relates to – the one who strays too far or the one who observes her fall. The speaker’s knowledge is intimate enough that we wonder if she has been through it herself (how else would she know?) but she refrains from saying so explicitly.

In the next stanza the camera lens pans back out to the group of girls, and the image of their primping is almost repulsive – “lips slick with petroleum” – as she observes them leaving the bar “down the black tube toward morning.” The black tube could refer to the lipstick tube from the previous line, a subway ride home, or the more metaphoric tube/hole beckoning the young women out to the future. Within that space is the flashiest sonic music of the poem – “little pots of hot pink clink like crystal…” – that evokes for me both desire and disgust in the speaker who may view these younger women with something between worry and desire.

Her identification with the girls reaches its climax with the accusatory (or is it just gossipy?) “Did you kiss the devil’s ass / in the alley?” But that question seems to trip a protective wire in the speaker. She’s gone far enough, she doesn’t want to go farther, and so she shuts down her line of thought with “Please, no more questions.” It’s a wonderfully surprising line, because of course we haven’t been asking any questions. Nevertheless the speaker seems suddenly to feel our curiosity upon her, and she turns herself away. Weirdly it’s that moment of refusal that reveals the most vulnerability in the voice. We know that, in her opinion, “We’re all having a hard time,” and so we can guess she has problems of her own, but until she puts her hand up, it doesn’t occur to us to wonder how deep those problems go.

In some ways this turning away exposes more than any explicit confession might. I remember an acting teacher once saying that watching a performer struggle to hold back tears is often more moving to an audience than watching her cry on stage. It’s our sense of the forces in conflict that connects us to a performance. Similarly, in “Ode to a Rolling Blackout,” we feel the desire in Rogers’ speaker to claim connection to the “pretty girls” and their adventures, but we also feel her desire to refrain from divulging the sources of her hard-won wisdom. Her reticence, her refusal to “dish,” is as much what makes the speaker an adult as her ability to sidestep any ass-kissing in alleys.

This returns me to the question of authenticity. The speaker’s position between confession and restraint, identification and distance, seems to me the central subject of the poem. And so whether or not the speaker of the poem, or the “real” Damian Rogers, knows what it’s like to pick her teeth with her coke nail is less important than the feelings of trepidation, of empathy and worry, and even a bit of nostalgia for an earlier, more dangerous and exciting life, that the poet reveals and explores. How much does she really know about it? The sufficient answer for the poem is “maybe some.” And the more complete answer is none of your damned business.

 

 

 

 

Philip Metres, “Recipe from the Abbasid”

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A common poetry classroom assignment is to write a “how to” poem, explaining some activity or recipe. It’s often a fruitful exercise because it forces us to pay close attention to detail, and invites us to think metaphorically about something mundane (“How to Tie a Knot” or “How to Draw a Perfect Circle“), or to think concretely about something more metaphoric or abstract (“How to Judge” or “How to Continue”). Here Philip Metres draws on a recipe found in Nawal Nasrallah’s Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and History of the Iraqi Cuisine, which you can find out more about here. But aspiring chefs should probably go back to Nasrallah’s original text before attempting to feed their families – Metres has made some rather unappetizing alterations… Here’s the poem:

 

“Recipe from the Abbasid”

 

Skin & clean a fat, young sheep & open it

like a door, a port city hosting overseas guests

 

& remove its stomach. In its interior, place

surveyors in exploratory khakhi, a stuffed goose

 

& in the goose’s belly, a stuffed hen, & in the hen,

machine gun nests, C rations, grenades, a stuffed

 

pigeon, & in the pigeon’ belly, a stuffed thrush,

& in the thrush’s belly, contractual negotiations

 

& subtle threats, all sprinkled with sauce. Sew the slit

into a smile, dispatch handshakes. Add Chevron,

 

Exxon, Texaco, Shell. Place the sheep in the oven

& leave until this black slimy stuff, excretion

 

of the earth’s body, is crispy on the outside,

& ready for presentation.

 

— from Sand Opera (Alice James Books 2015), used by permission

 

I should mention before I dive in that Sand Opera includes poems that are much more wide-ranging and experimental than the one reproduced here. The first section, “abu ghraib arias,” is a mournful reexamination of the treatment of prisoners by United States servicemen and -women at the notorious prison of the title and at Guantanamo Bay, and includes text from a Standing Operating Procedure handbook, moving testimony from both Americans and former prisoners (some of it blacked out or partly erased), and texts from the Bible and the Code of Hammurabi. Other sections deal with Metres’ own conflicts between his American upbringing and his Arab heritage, and sometimes include such strange additional material as a floor map of a prison cell and a reproduction of Saddam Hussein’s fingerprints. All of this, especially as it accumulates, has a lot of impact, and there’s more to say about it all, but given the limits of my enterprise here, I thought it best to focus on something that can stand alone for readers. Please do go and check the book out further, though, because the collection feels particularly relevant today.

The metaphoric language being used as the poem begins appears at first to be in the service of vivid description– we are to open the sheep’s skin “like a door,” or perhaps like “a port city.” These similes might be a bit elaborate for a standard cookbook, but given the medieval source (more on the Abbasids shortly), and the fact that we know we’re reading a poetic rendering of the recipe, perhaps we should expect such leaps of language. I speak from experience when I say that over-thinking the correlation between a sheep’s internal organs and the structure of a port city is more fanciful than clarifying, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun.

Soon, though, we are instructed to insert “surveyors in exploratory khakhi” into the interior of the sheep, and our metaphor-making has to change direction. For a brief amusing instant I admit I wondered if this was some culinary idiom – if we can make “pigs in a blanket” or a chow mein noodle “bird’s nest,” why not “surveyors in khakhi”? But it doesn’t hold up and we realize that it’s the sheep, rather than the stuffing, that is becoming the metaphoric vehicle. We speed through historical tag-marks that point to European colonial rule (surveyors) to the Second World War (C rations and machine gun nests), and eventually to more modern representations of the “West”: “contractual negotiations & subtle threats.” All of this is clever enough for us to wonder what it is we are cooking, and we sense the ironic anger simmering under the veneer of hospitality. But this poem isn’t merely an anti-colonialist screed; in fact it contains a much more far-reaching and complex critique of power and wealth.

The Abbasid Caliphate, based mostly in Baghdad, ruled a large section of what we now call “the Middle East” from roughly 750 CE until the 1500s, and presided over what historians now often refer to as the Golden Age of Islam. From the development of algebra to The Book of a Thousand and One Nights, the Abbasids were the epitome of an advanced civilization. Only a culture with significant wealth and expertise could conceive of a recipe that includes (if we stick to the edible parts) a thrush inside a pigeon inside a chicken inside a goose inside a sheep. (It makes John Madden’s turducken puny in camparison!) On the one hand, it’s glorious. On the other, it’s absurd. And knowing how luxury has usually been built on the subjugation of others, it is easy to surmise that few in the Caliphate would have had access to the kind of delicacy referred to in this poem. The final line of the poem, “& ready for presentation,” makes it clear that we who are cooking this fabulous meal are probably not going to partake in it.

One of the secrets to the Abbasid’s success was its openness to the influence of other nations – particularly from Persia, but also China and elsewhere, east and west. So the lines “Sew the slit / into a smile, dispatch handshakes” seems to point the finger not just at the colonial power-brokers from elsewhere who exploited the region, but also at those who have been complicit in those efforts, welcoming them with traditional hospitality on the one hand, but an eye toward personal gain on the other.

So while the poem invites a familiar reaction against oil companies like Exxon and Shell, a closer reading reveals that rather than some sort of historical aberration, these corporations are merely the most recent in a series of powerful forces that have always exploited the region and its people, contributing to the suffering that in this poem is in the margins (although it takes center stage elsewhere in Sand Opera) but also patronizing the craftsmen, artists, and scientists whose achievements might appear in a 21st century recipe book. Can we create luxury without oppression? Will it be ever thus? How much more must we shove into that pathetic, accommodating sheep?

One final note regarding tone. A recipe tends to be written in the imperative case: do this, mix that, bake for 45 minutes. When we read these instructions we rarely find ourselves opposing them – “What do you mean I should pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees?!” But by the end of this poem, I find myself cultivating a kind of internal resistance, not just to the recipe itself (“No, I’d rather not add Chevron to my roast thanks”) but to the whole enterprise the recipe now refers to. Of course, the poem doesn’t provide an answer for how to separate the seemingly inextricable pairing of luxury and oppression. But by calling our attention to it, Metres encourages us to imagine a different recipe altogether that will feed everyone with generosity and taste.

 

Natalia Toledo, “Flower That Drops Its Petals”

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If you are going to build a homemade hand grenade, you’d better do everything exactly right. Better not to do it all than to do it imperfectly. Most things aren’t like that, though. Good translation necessitates a compromise between the demands of the original poem, and the demands of its new language. There are always changes, losses, compromises. But just because there’s no such thing as a perfect translation doesn’t make the efforts of translators pointless. On the contrary, the effort to bring a poem into a new language can add to the readership of a fine poet, but also create something entirely original in its new linguistic home. Frost once quipped, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” but that may just be because he didn’t do much translating himself. He certainly read his fair share of translations, with pretty decent results.

Natalia Toledo is a well-known Mexican poet who writes in Zapotec, a language spoken by roughly half a million people, mostly in southwestern Mexico. There are plenty of resources online to learn about the history and grammar of Zapotec, as well as some of the efforts attempting to preserve it. But if you just want a quick taste of what it sounds like, you can hear some here, including two poems in the voice of Toledo herself.

Toledo translates the poems into Spanish, and in 2015 Phoneme Media published a book of Clare Sullivan’s translations into English which includes Toledo’s original Zapotec as well as the Spanish versions. (It’s a beautifully made book, by the way — read it one way to see the Zapotec and English, then turn it upside down to see the Zapotec against the Spanish.) Sullivan has the good fortune to be able to consult with Toledo herself about the poems, but they are still translations of translations, and so we are always seeing them through an opaque gauze, trying to fathom the nuances we are missing. For those of us who can’t read or speak Zapotec, we must ultimately approach the poems as poems in English, echoing or reflecting Toledo’s intentions rather than mirroring them exactly. The reflection will be warped, but if our translator does well, then the warped reflection will have its own beauty, intention, and meaning. So let’s have a look:

 

Flower that Drops Its Petals

 

I will not die from absence.

A hummingbird pinched the eye of my flower

my heart mourns and shivers

and does not breathe.

My wings tremble like the long-billed curlew

when he foretells the sun and the rain.

I will not die from absence, I tell myself.

A melody bows down upon the throne of my sadness,

an ocean springs from my stone of origin.

I write in Zapotec to ignore the syntax of pain,

ask the sky and its fire

to give me back my happiness.

Paper butterfly that sustains me:

why did you turn your back upon the star

that knotted your navel?

 

— from The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems (Phoneme Media 2015), used by permission of the publisher

One of the things I love about this poem is the mix of the strange and the familiar, and how Toledo brings us along from one to the other. The lyrical tone of the speaker at the beginning (“I will not die from absence”) is firmly in the romantic tradition – my first reading assumed the “absence” that she refuses to die from is the absence of a lover, and I don’t think that reading is ever fully dispelled, although other more complicated readings are added to it. So as a reader I begin with recognition.

The other familiar tactic in the opening lines is the reliance on the natural world to illustrate the speaker’s distress – “a hummingbird pinched the eye of my flower” is not an image I’ve encountered before, but the precision of the description, wild as it is, makes a kind of poetic sense to me. I’m not exactly sure what “the eye of my flower” is either, but with “my heart” in the next line, I can make an educated guess. Or to be more exact, I’m comfortable being in the vicinity of knowing what she means.

But things gradually get stranger as we move through the poem. I know what a curlew is (think of a sandpiper, with a long, curved, thin bill), but the idea that curlews somehow foretell sun and rain is new and odd, and I’m beginning to wonder if the speaker’s “wings tremble[ing]” is such a bad thing. The references to the creatures in the speaker’s home landscape are not only illustrating her distress, they seem to be providing her with the tools to resist it. So, after the repetition of “I will not die from absence,” my sense is that “a melody bows down upon my throne of sadness” seems to be a positive development, as does “an ocean springs from my stone of origin.” The way I read it, the power and fecundity of the ocean is going to help her fight off that potentially lethal absence.

By the way, here’s something I often catch in English translations of Romantic languages – the frequent use of the construction “the XX of XX.” In the tiny bit of Spanish I know, and a bit more in French, the words del, de, de la, du are so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible, the way we don’t notice if the word “the” occurs a lot in an English sentence. In English we tend to notice that construction after a few instances, so that “eye of my flower,” “throne of sadness,” “stone of origin,” and “syntax of pain” call attention to themselves a bit as Toledo’s imagistic technique. I sympathize with Sullivan’s challenges as a translator here, tbough, because if you replaced those phrases with “flower eye,” “sadness throne,” or “origin stone,” it would sound a bit too clipped, brutal, abrupt or for the lyric tone of the poem. But I thought I’d point it out as an interesting way that bringing a language into English presents the translator with unique difficulties. I suspect this wouldn’t be true with, say, a translation from Spanish to French.

Meanwhile I want to know more about this “stone of origin.” Because if an ocean springs from it, it’s clearly a source of bounty and assurance for our speaker. The mention of Zapotec in the next line supports the growing sense I have that this poem isn’t really about romantic heartbreak, but rather about cultural alienation. Why is writing in Zapotec a way “to ignore the syntax of pain”? Knowing that Toledo also speaks and writes in Spanish, we can deduce that Spanish has a painful syntax for her, no doubt partly because of the history of oppression and violence that speakers of Zapotec faced (and continue to face) in the language, laws, and sentences of Spanish. But the idea that the very syntax of Spanish is painful is more profound, because we ourselves are reading the poem via a Spanish translation that Toledo herself wrote. And we can imagine that Spanish syntax has infiltrated into her own mind and mouth. She is a contorted person, in pain in the syntax of Spanish, which nevertheless she must use in order for us to understand her.

But Toledo’s speaker refuses to perish under this, and because she has access to her native language, her declaration (in Spanish, and then in English) that she writes in Zapotec seems to be a way of explaining herself to outsiders like us, but also a way to work her way back to a language in which she can pray to “the sky and its fire” for happiness. Even through the double-gauze of two translations, we sense that the phrase that Sullivan has interpreted as “the sky and its fire” is likely a traditional one in Zapotec, perhaps with religious connotations. If her life in the broader world has forced her into a syntax of pain, this poem – and the others written in her first language – are her way back to the spiritual sources of her power and happiness.

The last sentence is mystifying in a way that delights me. The poem addresses some version of what we might call the speaker’s soul, metaphorized as a “paper butterfly.” But what is this paper butterfly? Is it a species of insect familiar to the region, or a reference to origami, a practice that must have been imported? And while the admonishment that she should not have turned her back on her star/heritage is one I’ve seen in other contexts, the image that illustrates it is again deceptively cross-cultural. “The star / that knotted your navel” seems to refer to both pre-Christian religious beliefs but also to more recent scientific discoveries about our origins in stardust. By reclaiming Zapotec, Toledo seems better able to live in and understand both the ancient and modern worlds.

Here I also want to give credit to Clare Sullivan for summoning the wonderful phrase “knotted your navel,” which feels like a new way to illustrate a birth metaphor that is cultural more than it is biological. It also has a wonderful bit of alliterative music that is not in the Spanish (“que anudaba tu ombligo”) but which I sense is there in the original: “beleguí biliibine xquípilu’.” You don’t have to be able to know how to pronounce that phrase to see all of the b’s, l’s and i’s playing off each other. So we have Clare Sullivan to thank for giving us a sense in English of what it might sound like for a Zapotec speaker to return to her language and culture in a way that will in turn help her face the rest of the world. It’s a gift that is only possible in translation.